- - Tuesday, November 20, 2018

For decades, starting in the mid-1960s, the federal government has fought to reduce the number of Americans who smoke cigarettes and use other forms of tobacco.

This was a good thing, since there are a number of ill-health effects clearly attributable to using tobacco products. In recent years, a product has entered the marketplace that provides a cheaper alternative to smoking tobacco that does not cause the bad health side effects as smoking: Vaping.

A vaping device, which can be as small as a computer thumb drive, has a tiny, battery-driven heating element and a small container of liquid containing flavored nicotine. When the user draws on the device, the heating element heats a small amount of the liquid, which becomes a vapor (technically, an “aerosol”). The vapor or aerosol thus produced appears like smoke, but it isn’t; and current research has found that it contains none of the carcinogens that make smoking tobacco so harmful.

There are between 9 million and 10 million regular adult “vapers” in the United States alone, many of whom are former tobacco smokers. While vaping is not “healthy,” it is much healthier than smoking and millions of Americans who were or would be tobacco smokers are not, thanks to the advent of vaping.

Of course, as with any burgeoning industry, companies have sprung up that develop, produce and market the components of vaping devices. One of these is Juul, a company with roots in the start of the vaping industry in 2007, but which boomed in 2017 with the introduction of the sleek, Juul device.

So, here we are today. A growing industry. An affordable product that can wean people away from harmful tobacco and offers an alternative to starting smoking.

And, rather than finding ways to work with Juul and other vaping companies, in order to help ensure that teenagers (too young to buy tobacco products) are prevented from purchasing vapes and educating vape users about the dangers of nicotine addiction, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is taking an adversarial stance against the entire vaping industry. Herein lies our joint concern.

The FDA is taking the position that Juul’s product — an instrument that is far more compact than its competitors — and the flavorings it sells, target “youth.” Despite the fact that Juul’s website through which it markets its product direct to consumers clearly prohibits purchases by minors (as do retailers that carry vaping products), the FDA remains undeterred.

Juul has tried to work with the FDA by conducting studies showing its product do not target minors. The FDA in response has doubled down; in essence declaring that the company’s educational efforts and advertising must go much further; basically, urging people not to buy or use its product. That doesn’t make sense, from either a business or a public policy standpoint.

The FDA also seeks also to punish the company because some retailers have been lax in ensuring that purchasers show identification proving they are of age. While tightening laws against selling tobacco and vaping products to minors are needed (particularly at the state level), punishing the manufacturers of a product for the sins of a retailer over which it has little if any control, seems, at a minimum, unfair.

A Juul device and load of flavored liquid sells for far less than other products designed to inhibit or stop smokers’ urge to light up; including, of course, prescription products manufactured and sold at significantly higher prices by pharmaceutical companies. The simple facts are that some people like vaping, and others vape to avoid smoking cigarettes and all the deadly side effects that come with that destructive habit.

Maybe in a perfect world, no one would vape or smoke. But until as a society we achieve nirvana, the FDA should be realistic and work with companies like Juul to ensure people are educated about the risks of nicotine addiction and that minors do not have access to these products meant to be sold only to adults.

• Bob Barr is a former Republican U.S. representatives from Georgia. Ronnie Shows is a former Democratic U.S. representative from Mississippi.

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